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Lawyers for Morris seek to strike possible death penalty

May 25, 2007|By ERIN JULIUS

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. - Lawyers for a Roxbury Correctional Institution inmate charged in the 2006 slaying of a correctional officer on Friday asked a Howard County circuit judge to strike the state's notice of intent to seek the death penalty.

Brandon T. Morris, 21, is charged with three counts of first-degree murder and other charges in the slaying of Roxbury Correctional Officer Jeffery Alan Wroten.

Wroten, 44, of Martinsburg, W.Va., was shot in the face with his own gun while guarding Morris at Washington County Hospital on Jan. 26, 2006, police have said. Wroten died the next day.

Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney on Friday declined to rule on the motion to strike the death penalty, saying he wanted to examine the issue in more detail. He did not indicate when he would issue a ruling.

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In March 2006, Washington County prosecutors filed a notice of intent to execute Morris if he is convicted. Three months earlier, the Maryland Court of Appeals had ruled that parts of the written manual for Maryland's lethal-injection procedure hadn't been properly adopted and couldn't be used until the state's protocol for the procedure either is approved by a joint legislative committee or exempted by law from such a review.

The defense motion, filed May 2 in Howard County Circuit Court, argues that the appeals court effectively eliminated the possibility of the death penalty in its ruling.

It is unfair to Morris to go forward with the trial while it remains unclear whether the death penalty could be carried out, Assistant Public Defender Eric A. Reed argued Friday during a motions hearing.

Because of the procedural problems with Maryland's lethal-injection procedure, there is "simply no lawful method of execution on the books," Reed said.

"A defendant has the right to know what's the worst that can happen," he said.

Assistant State's Attorney John Dunlap called the defense's argument misleading, and said the death penalty wasn't struck down in Maryland.

All the Maryland Court of Appeals decision said was that administrative procedures haven't been adopted, Dunlap argued.

Sweeney also addressed several other motions that had been filed, most of them administrative in nature.

Morris appeared in court Friday with his three-man defense team wearing a blue prison uniform with "D.O.C." printed on the back. He slumped in his chair, twice conferring quietly with Harun Shabazz of the Office of the Public Defender's Capital Defense Division in Baltimore.

Five, and sometimes six, uniformed Howard County Sheriff's deputies were stationed around the courtroom, with one sitting beside Morris and another sitting at the other end of the defense table.

Since Morris faces the death penalty, he has an automatic right to have his case tried in another county under the Maryland constitution.

Beginning May 31, prospective jurors will be asked to fill out a lengthy questionnaire as part of the procedure in place for death penalty trials.

Jury selection begins June 4, and the state will start presenting its evidence June 11.

The trial and sentencing are expected to take more than two weeks.

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